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Friday, November 14, 2008

Call Me Ishmael
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Melville's novel "Moby Dick" was first published in the U.S. on this date, in 1851. It has since become the archetypal literary exploration of self-destructive monomaniacal obsession, as the tyrannical Captain Ahab is driven half-mad, and ultimately to the destruction of himself, his ship and all but one of his crew, by a single-minded desire to search out and destroy the "white whale."

Captain Ahab may have perished by the end of Melville's novel but, as my colleague Adam Thierer has noted, his real-life counterpart lives on in the form of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. Whatever real or perceived injuries have been visited upon Mr. Martin by cable television providers, there can be but little doubt that the one abiding theme throughout his tenure as FCC Chairman has been a single-minded pursuit of the cable industry.

Most recently, that pursuit has taken the form of an investigation into channel and pricing changes occurring in conjunction with the digital television transition. Kyle McSlarrow, the President of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, has called the investigation a "fishing expedition" (perhaps he meant a "whaling expedition"?) seeking highly sensitive information relating to prices the FCC no longer has authority to regulate.

The time has come for Chairman Martin's crew - the Commissioners and staff of the FCC - to get off his ship before it founders like Ahab's Pequod. The cable television industry is a great American success story. Small, family-owned entrepreneurial enterprises grew to create an entire industry that now provides multichannel television service to sixty-plus million American homes. It has spawned competitors, using new technologies to provide similar services, which compete in every market in the country and which are growing more competitively robust every day. Collectively, multichannel television providers are providing more choices, better service, and more diverse pricing options than ever before.

Chairman Martin's tireless pursuit of the cable industry thus increasingly seems less some grand consumer protection effort and more a reflection of his own eccentricities. Ahab, at least it appears, understood that the target of his obsession and his harpoons, Moby Dick, would also be his demise. As he closed on the white whale to drive his fluke into the mighty creature's flanks, Ahab cried out in both celebration and doom, "from Hell's heart I stab at thee," and was then drawn by his own efforts into the abyss.

On this 157th anniversary of the publication of Moby Dick, the Commissioners and staff of the FCC should reflect upon Melville's cautionary tale of obsession, sciomachy, and revenge. For, unlike the crew of the Pequod, the crew of the FCC yet has time, as Chairman Martin prepares to throw his final parting darts cable's way, to abandon the pursuit before all are lost.

posted by W. Kenneth Ferree @ 12:31 PM | Cable , The FCC

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